Police investigators in Pakistan are developing a theory that the murder of Pakistani religious affairs minister Shahbaz Bhatti was due to a “family dispute,” not religious extremism, according to a story on Aug. 9 in the Express Tribune English daily newspaper.

Quoting an unidentified official associated with the Joint Investigation Team (JIT) probing the assassination, the Tribune said “Shahbaz’s murder is said to be linked to a ‘chronic rivalry’ with relatives who lived in Faisalabad five years ago."

Bhatti, 42, was a Roman Catholic and vigorously campaigned for minority religious rights in Pakistan, which is 95 percent Muslim. He had criticized the country’s blasphemy law, which makes it a capital crime to insult Islam, before he was ambushed and sprayed with bullets on March 2 as he was leaving for his office in Islamabad. Groups claiming ties with the Islamic Taliban and al-Qaida later claimed responsibility for the murder.

Christian groups criticized the police investigation, based on the news reports. “This is just another cover up. They want to show that Shahbaz was not killed by religious extremists,” Victor Azariah, general secretary of the National Council of Churches in Pakistan (NCCP), told ENInews on Aug. 12 from his office in Lahore.

The NCCP is a partner of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)

According to the Tribune story, a member of the JIT team claims that two or three of the murderers converted to Islam and fled Pakistan. The report also quoted the official as saying that while names of the culprits have not been identified yet, “we will approach Interpol for their arrest.”

Azariah said there is now no confidence in the Bhatti probe. “Nothing is going to happen with this investigation. The people have lost faith in the process,” he said. The NCCP groups the country’s four mainline Protestant churches. “The investigators seem to ignore even the claim of an Islamic party owning up to the murder," he added.

Cecil Choudhary, executive secretary of the All Pakistan Minorities Alliance (APMA), co-founded by Bhatti, told ENInews that the news represented “an extremely alarming twist” in the investigation.

“It has deliberately been taken onto another track in order to clear the Islamic extremists, who categorically claimed responsibility for the murder,” he said. APMA plans to organize street protests to demand a judicial enquiry into the assassination. “We want the truth to come out,” he said.

Peter Jacob, executive secretary of the Justice and Commission of the Catholic church, told ENInews that the "family feud" theory is unfounded. "Bhatti is my third cousin and I know him from childhood. We have the same relatives. The allegation of family and property feud is only to defame a bold champion of minority rights," he said.

The Express Tribune, based in Karachi, Pakistan, is published in collaboration with the International Herald Tribune.